Last weekend was certainly a good one for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He took the Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island by storm. Romney was expected to do well here.
He was born in Detroit; his father was a popular and respected governor in the nineteen-sixties, and he is seen as a native son, even though he hasn’t lived in Michigan since nineteen sixty-five.
But he performed even better than expected. By nearly all accounts, he considerably outpointed his main rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry, when the two addressed state party leaders.
Romney sprinkled his remarks with familiar Michigan references; Perry, somewhat lamely, said his dad once came to Fenton to buy a truck. Last week was a bad one in many ways for Perry, who seemed to be following the rule of “open mouth, insert foot.” For a month the Texas governor had seemed to be about to take the presidential nomination by storm.
Now, his star seems to be receding. But this race has a long way to go. Babies not yet conceived will be born before either party holds its national nominating convention next summer.
But I have a strong feeling I know who is going to win, after having studied these things for a long time. Barring catastrophe, the nomination was always Mitt Romney’s.
Here’s why. Unbeknownst even to themselves, Republican presidential politics follow what I call “the rule of the second-place elephant.” In recent history, they’ve always picked the candidate who finished second in the last nomination battle. Gerald Ford beat Ronald Reagan in 1976. The next time, the GOP nominated Reagan. Reagan won the nomination over George Bush the first. The latter then loyally served eight years as vice president before he was nominated.
Bush One got that nineteen eighty-eight nomination by beating Bob Dole. After Bush, it was Dole’s turn. Dole didn’t have a major opponent, so after he lost, the party turned to George Bush’s son.
George W. Bush beat out John McCain. Three years ago, it was John McCain’s turn, after he beat -- you guessed it -- one Willard Mitt Romney.
So precedent would strongly indicate Romney’s the man. That’s not all he has going for him; he is handsome, rich enough to finance his campaign, and, most important perhaps, has run a national race before.
Romney knows how to avoid making some of the mistakes first-timers always do. What’s more, the press has been over his record with a fine-tooth comb. If he were a bigamist or had a past drinking problem, we’d know by now. Perry is just starting to get that kind of scrutiny. So I am convinced Romney is the man.
Precedents are made to be broken, however. And Romney is smart enough to know that whatever polls say now, beating any incumbent President is going to be hard.
Romney won’t find it easy to win either of his home states, which usually vote Democratic for president. He also has a lot of ground to make up. He could win all the states John McCain did and add Indiana, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.
And he would still lose. This election has a long way to go. If Romney is the candidate, Michigan is likely to have a ringside seat.